By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014
By Harriet Bradley
Paul de Zylva is Head of Nature at Friends of the Earth [FOE]. He designed and is running FOE’s current campaign – The Bee Cause – launched on April 11 2012. Two years from its launch, they’re on the verge of getting a National Pollinator Strategy [NPS] from the Government.
Q: What motivated you to set up The Bee Cause?
A: The organisation was looking for a new campaign. We’d done a lot of work on energy and climate change issues but we weren’t doing much about the natural environment. There was a lot of concern about the issue of bee decline, there were a lot of organisations working on bees – but I think FOE is an organization dealing with the ‘root-cause’ problem – and no one was looking at all the causes of bee decline together. And that felt like an opportunity to work on an issue about bees, but that’s also really about our relationship to, or our mismanagement of, nature.
Q: Was there something particularly dramatic happening at the time in terms of bee populations?
A: Not really, no. There had been a decline in honeybees over a 20-year period between 1985 and 2005. The Government had funded some research into the pests and diseases of managed honeybee colonies, but no one was looking at wild bees and broader pollinators, or joining up the causes of decline. I thought that was the space FOE could occupy in a way that wouldn’t threaten other organisations and that would give people lots of interesting angles on the issue.
Q: So you get a form of competition between campaigning organisations?
A: There’s always a bit of healthy competition and collaboration among campaign groups but with The Bee Cause we’ve helped by bringing together the issues in a coherent way. Although the issue is already popular, it isn’t any easier because it touches on so many tough and potentially controversial issues such as what is the role of farming in relation to the natural environment? What is the role of chemicals in relation to species?
Q: Why do you think The Bee Cause is a policy issue?
A: Because there was a policy vacuum. We launched the campaign with a report from the University of Reading who said the issues are about farming, pesticide exposure, loss of habitat, the way we develop our towns and cities and, for managed colonies of honeybees, about pests and diseases and the danger of them migrating into the wild bee population. And then they’re about those causes interacting.
The Government was putting a lot of money into honeybee research, but there wasn’t a huge amount of policy detail. If the Government’s draft plan being developed now is half good, it will fill quite a lot of that policy gap. I think that whilst we live in an age of “Big Society” and localism, the public still looks to Government to lead. If the Government doesn’t have a policy on an issue, why would the public act?
Q: Do you think the economic and social benefits that bees provide explain the Government taking an interest in this particular issue?
A: Yes- that as well. The day we launched the campaign we led in our press release with the fact that if we had to pollinate crops in the UK by hand, it would cost farmers an extra £1.8 billion a year, and that would go on food bills. And that got political attention.
We had support from 250 MPs across the party divide backing our call for a bee action plan in the UK. I think they saw the sense that in an era when everyone’s talking about food security and valuing the natural environment more, are you really going to ignore the problem of bee decline?
Q: What is Friends of the Earth’s relationship to policy makers, how does it influence them and the policy agenda?
A: Sometimes it’s through formal channels- changing or using the law has been a theme of FOE’s work over the decades; we like to get our policy positions right and base those on good research. Democracy may not be perfect and in many ways it doesn’t work anywhere near what it needs to for the challenges we face on the climate and the natural environment. But can you do campaigning and advocacy without policy? Probably not. You’ve got to stand for something.
But policy work is more subtle than just going in at legislative level. Direct meetings with ministers I think is increasingly the theme of our times. And a lot of policy stems from working with decision-makers in business or civil society.
Q: Like working with business?
A: Yes, we are working with certain business interests through the bees campaign like B&Q, M&S, the Co-operative, Waitrose, Sainsburys. There are increasingly in my view pennies dropping around whole different sectors of society about what climate and a diminishing natural world means for farming, business supply chains, and civic society. Companies like Puma have looked at the whole effect on the natural environment of their product chain. The bottom line is that if they had to pay the true cost of what impact they have on the environment they would be out of business.
Q: Are you up against other lobbyists working behind the scenes with opposing interests?
A: Yes, they are there but I think that’s the name of the game. You know that they’re probably doing some stuff behind the scenes which is representing their interests. Equally, I think it’s been very powerful for us to be able to show to ministers the businesses and civic society organisations that we are working with.
Q: Do you feel a pressure to place a cost on things?
A: The valuation of nature is quite contentious. My colleagues are concerned about the unproven market-based ‘financialization’ of nature. You can never put an accurate price on nature, but if you give some indicative figures it focuses the mind and sets off a debate that policymakers are never going to do without that focus.
The test of the valuation of nature debate is whether it starts to turn round the decline of nature, and if that change leads to changes in policy fields but also within business practices. If it’s simply another case of destroying nature because we’ve managed to sell it to the highest bidder, then that’s not a change, that’s just creating a market.
Q: So do think that we need a national or international solution, along the lines of the European Commission’s ban on some pesticides linked to bee decline.
A: It’s a 2-year restriction until 2015 on some uses of three neonicotinoids. It got loads of interest from North America and Canada, because they’re having the same kind of debate there. But obviously pesticides are only part of the problem.
Q: What do you see as the long-term solution – do we need to rethink our agricultural system?
A: Oh yes. We need to rethink a lot. The latest Common Agricultural Policy reforms promised to ‘green the CAP’ and they’ve been a huge let down- a lot of lobbying behind the scenes has stopped the reforms that were needed. There’s a lively debate about whether we need to continue to just squeeze the land to grow more crops, or whether there’s a better way of feeding mouths other than squeezing the life out of our farmland. Bees have brought about that debate on pesticides, but it also needs to apply to the urban environment.
So yes, transformational change is what we need, but it will probably happen in increments, and occasional shocks to the system. The job of a campaigning organisation like FOE is to use those issues but be ready for them as well. That’s the world of campaigning- it’s about that basic human spirit that you can make a difference. There is a view held by some in certain organisations that charities shouldn’t be campaigning for change, charities should just do good works. It’s come to the fore recently in the whole debate about the Lobbying Bill, where the constraints are now put on charities in the run up to a General Election.
Q: So do you think those restrictions have come from those sorts of voices?
A: Partly, I think there’s a healthy debate about what a charity should be. We are confronting some of the big issues of the day, on pollution, energy, traffic, redevelopment, green space- I think that’s as much ‘Big Society’ and civil action and civic pride as anything. We fundamentally believe that good decision-making and good governance is what’s needed if we’re going to turn around some of these problems, and get away from the idea that somehow just by making the economy better everything will be okay.
For example there’s a rescue job needed on sustainable development to reclaim what it means, rather than just say it’s the economy comes first and everything else comes last. There has been a hijacking in some cases of sustainability – enough industries putting the word ‘sustainable’ in front of words like ‘aviation’. Words become normalized, but you then have to challenge their usage to hold people to account and hold true what is really meant by those things.
Q: Perhaps costing nature could be a way of drawing attention to problems not traditionally seen to come into economic calculations?
A: It’s a way of garnering attention, you need to know where the risks are. Some of our colleagues in southern countries- in Africa, Asia, South America in particular, are very suspicious of the financialization of nature. They’ve experienced this with an initiative called REDD and REDD+, where incentives have been given to continue to destroy rainforest or virgin forest because companies get subsidized to plant oil palm plantations.
Q: That seems to undermine theories that the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely they are to care about environmental, as opposed to ‘materialist’ issues.
A: There is some evidence, but it’s too easy and increasingly inaccurate to say it’s only the rich who care about the environment. I think the challenge is that people engage with nature and the environment irrespective, but if they’re not asked the right questions, if they’re told what to think, or they’re not given the chance to explore real choices, they’ll give the usual answers; that they’re not interested, or they need a job to put food on the table. We work with a lot of communities of environmental campaigners who are not wealthy, like those in North East England facing the worst excesses of industrial pollution. If you go to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, a lot of groups in Africa, there are people trying to do similar stuff against the odds.
Our job, as FOE nationally and internationally, is to empower those people to get a bit more traction on the issues to start doing stuff. Who holds the power and in whose interests are always good questions to ask. Just because you’ve identified the answers to those doesn’t mean you’ve solved the problem, but you map out who you need to work with. I think some institutions, organisations and decision-makers are starting to think the world is changing.
Q: Do you mean in terms of climate change?
A: Yes, some businesses are thinking far longer than most governments and some departments of state are prepared to think far longer than any term of office. The challenge to groups like us is always to make these things far more accessible than government ever will, and then reflect back to government and decision-makers that they are responsible.
Q: So you have more of a capacity to take a longer-term perspective?
A: Climate change is a long-term issue, but it’s also a short-term issue. If you look beneath the public opinion polls of what gets reported in the media, there are some fundamental questions facing every society, community, locality, about the things that really matter. And they tend not to be the things that get most of the public debate or media attention.
Q: That conveys a more positive view of human nature- that people do want to know about these things.
A: I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t positive. FOE and other organisations spent 40 years putting the environment on the agenda. Now we’ve got it there, we’re trying to work out where that goes next. And one of the key things is that it isn’t just a separate issue – it’s fundamental to all the questions about quality of life, wealth, welfare, wellbeing, health, human rights – whether it’s comparing Teesside to Dorking, or the Thames Valley to Thailand.